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Come to the Crossroads
Taylor Momsen Sells Her Soul for Rock 'n' Roll
BY JESS YACOVELLE
If you tuned into your local rock station in July, you may have found yourself swaying to the hypnotic refrain of a woman making a deal with the devil. It’s the story of the crossroads—a place in Mississippi where it was rumored musicians sold their souls for success—modernized and brought to life by the daring “Take Me Down,” which shot to the top of the mainstream rock charts last summer. There’s a fervor behind the lyrics as 23-year-old singer Taylor Momsen audaciously proclaims, “Don’t care what happens when I die; as long as I’m alive, all I want to do is rock.” There’s more passion in her voice, her song, her words than most musicians display in their entire careers, and it’s that passion that has catapulted Momsen’s band The Pretty Reckless to international success.
Momsen is the songwriter and front woman of The Pretty Reckless, a New York City rock band currently signed with Razor & Tie. Though Momsen is perhaps best known for her costarring role in the 2007 CW series Gossip Girl as Jenny Humphrey, she has long since left all public associations to Little J and acting in her childhood with the release of The Pretty Reckless’s second album Going to Hell. The album features three mainstream rock chart-toppers and gave the band an influx of new fans throughout the world. With a steadfast focus on making quality rock music, Momsen and The Pretty Reckless released the band’s highly acclaimed third album Who You Selling For in October 2016 with two singles that spent weeks on the charts. Now midway through the Who You Selling For tour, Taylor Momsen spoke with FINE Magazine about the new album, her writing style and breaking mainstream rock records.
Fueled by heart and humanity, Who You Selling For is a memorable walk through all sub-genres of rock music. The album covers a variety of sentiments and sounds over the course of its twelve songs, taking the listener through conflicting thoughts and into a twisted, convoluted excursion with hints of both hard rock and blues, desperation and hope. Who You Selling For is steeped in contrary emotions, but according to Momsen, “That’s just life, man. [Laughs]. I think in being human, your emotions range, your thoughts range. With this record, we tried to put no limitations on ourselves when it came to writing. That’s what’s so cool about rock and roll—it’s freedom.”
That freedom is present in Who You Selling For’s first single, “Take Me Down,” which features scratch—or reference track—elements. Explains Momsen, “‘Take Me Down,” [uses] scratch vocal and scratch guitar. We tried to beat it, but we couldn’t—it was that first-take magic.” It set a precedent for recording the rest of the record as if they were performing live—no overdubs, no manipulations, just pure music. “We really tried to capture the human element so you can hear the person behind the [music] and not have everything be perfect,” Momsen says. “Everything can be digitally manipulated now, but you lose so much of the humanity by doing that... We wanted to keep it as honest and raw as possible.” It’s what separates Who You Selling For from other albums released nowadays; while most artists produce a uniform sound from start to finish, The Pretty Reckless boldly opens Who You Selling For by Momsen joking with a bandmate to “get your s*** together” before the raw opening ballad begins—and in doing so, the album becomes a personal, intimate experience for the listener.
The Pretty Reckless continues their Who You Selling For tour, returning to the United States on April 25th after a multi- month international leg that took the band from Europe and Russia to South America. While the tour is in support of the band’s third studio album, The Pretty Reckless is featuring some of their earlier music as well, something Momsen says has been a welcome experience. “We have a plethora of material, so we can switch it up every night,” Momsen explains. “We’re playing longer than we’ve ever played before—we’re almost at two hours now—which allows for freedom with the setlist.” That setlist features a mixture of music from all three albums, including some songs the band hasn’t performed since their initial tour. “Obviously the newest material is the most fun for us to play right now because it’s the freshest,” Momsen allows, “but at the same time, we’re bringing back some old songs we haven’t played in years, like the title track from the first record, ‘Light Me Up.’ That’s fun for us too, because it almost feels new again, which is the cool thing about music—it constantly evolves. Music changes as you change.”
Change and evolution are certainly evident in The Pretty Reckless’s sound, and a large part of that stems from Momsen’s own growth and development. Beginning with The Pretty Reckless’s first album Light Me Up—written and released when Momsen was just fifteen—Momsen has co-written all songs with lead guitarist Ben Phillips. The Pretty Reckless’s music largely reflects what’s inside Momsen’s head, and as she has progressed, so too has the band. “The writing and playing has all grown in a natural way out of the fact that we’re older and have toured the world multiple times,” Momsen admits. “That certainly impacts your insight.”